The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is often subject of controversial debates. Something that frequently heats up the minds and ignites political debates are governmental-level bilateral signed BRI-MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding), which not only promise cooperation within the framework of BRI, but also substantiate the legitimacy of the initiative. This was seen last year, when the Australian state of Victoria decided to sign a MoU with China on the BRI. While some stated that signing this MoU is no big deal as the furor over Victoria’s MoU with China overlooks that – in Beijing’s eyes – the BRI is already at work in Australia, neither federal Labor nor the federal government were amused about Victoria’s solo run.
How many Belt and Road MoUs are already signed?
There is no official list or comprehensive compilation on which countries or organizations already have signed BRI-MoUs with China. But when reading Chinese state media during the last year, chances were high to at least once a week find a picture of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, signing a MoU on BRI. According to state-run Xinhua, so far, China has signed 123 cooperation documents on the Belt and Road development with 105 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the South Pacific region, and 26 such documents with 29 international organizations.
Structure of Belt and Road MoUs
Even if there are differences in the detailed designs of the MoUs, the basic structure of the agreements is similar. After agreeing on enhancing (policy) coordination and deepening mutually beneficial cooperation, both signing parties reach an “understanding” of cooperating on the five cooperation priorities of BRI 1. Policy coordination, 2. Facilities connectivity, 3. Unimpeded trade, 4. Financial integration, 5. People-to-people bonds. The five priorities are “guided by the principles of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits”. Genereally speaking, cooperation can cover a wide range of fields such as joint transportation infrastructure development, joint set-up of industrial parks, establishment of sister-city networks, trade and investment promotion, financial cooperation (such as strategic cooperation with the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank, AIIB) or the joint collaboration in regional initiatives.
Are Belt and Road MoUs legally binding?
At the end of the documents (see e.g. BRI-MoU China-Victoria or BRI-MoU China-Latvia), both parties agree that the document is not legally binding. But even if not legally binding, according to Chris Devonshire-Ellis, “certain elements within the MoU could be interpreted by either party, and especially the Chinese. Such interpretations can, in fact, influence the way in which China views statements made within the MoU, and regard these as important in future diplomatic talks. In short, the purpose of these non-legally binding MoU is to influence, rather than direct.”
“The MoU appear largely benign; however, it does contain the seeds of what could, in future, be used as diplomatic tools in terms of insisting that agreements have been reached over certain areas.” (Chris Devonshire-Ellis)
Countries and organizations, which officially pledged support to the Belt and Road Initiative (by MoUs or Joint Statements/Communiques)
*this list is not complete and is being updated continuously
|Antigua and Barbuda||MoU||2018|
|Arab Chambers of Commerce||MoU||2017|
|Barbados||Memorandum of Understanding to jointly advance the construction of the Belt and Road||2019|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||MoU||2017|
|European Union||Joint Statement|
|Italy||Memorandum of Understanding to jointly advance the construction of the Belt and Road||2019|
|Papua New Guinea||Joint Communique||2016|
|Tonga||Joint Communique, MoU||2018|
|Trinidad and Tobago||MoU||2018|
|United Arab Emirates||Framework Agreement||2017|